New lithium production techniques could play a vital role in making batteries for applications ranging from smartphones to electric vehicles that are more environmentally friendly than current extraction methods.
Automakers, mining companies and investors including the US Department of Energy are pumping money into direct lithium mining (DLE) technologies that promise to boost global production, according to a Reuters report. of lithium, which comes mainly from a handful of countries. today.
There are a number of DLE technologies that all revolve around extracting metal from brine in different ways, such as using filters, membranes or ceramic beads. These are touted as more sustainable solutions than existing means of obtaining lithium, such as pumping salt water containing lithium from underground lakes to the surface in desert areas of Chile or Argentina, and its extraction by evaporation in large basins.
However, while DLE techniques do not require the use of huge evaporation ponds, some critics have argued that they still consume large volumes of water and electricity to produce the lithium.
For example, General Motors aims to use a DLE technique to supply a considerable amount of the lithium it needs from the Salton Sea region of southern California, which would use 10 tons of water for every ton of lithium. produced.
But a company in Cornwall, UK, believes it has found a more environmentally friendly method of extracting lithium from brine. Cornish Lithium said it aimed to extract lithium from geothermal waters and power the extraction process with geothermal energy from the same source.
Cornish Lithium said it plans to extract lithium directly from fluids in a processing unit that is expected to have a footprint the size of a supermarket or medium-sized industrial unit.
The company said it had already received £9 million ($11.7 million) of a package of up to £18 million ($23.5 million) from metals-focused investment firm TechMet Limited. to develop its technology, and recently began drilling a research borehole at Twelveheads, near Redruth.
Elsewhere, an Australian company, Ekosolve Lithium Limited, announced this week that its DLE pilot plant had processed lithium brines from the Salar de Incahuasi, a salt basin in Argentina’s northwest Catamarca region, and had obtained a recovery of more than 90% of the lithium present.
He claimed that 200 liters of brine had been processed, with high quality lithium chloride produced. This can then be converted into battery-grade lithium carbonate or used as feedstock for other lithium compounds, according to the company.
In Canada, E3 Metals recently announced that it had received $1.1 million of a $1.8 million grant from research agency Alberta Innovates following the completion of its laboratory-based DLE pilot prototype that uses a proprietary ion exchange to extract lithium.
It now aims to build and operate a pilot field plant that will operate continuously in the Clearwater area to extract lithium directly from brine produced from the Leduc aquifer, to demonstrate that it can scale to at a projected commercial scale of 20,000 tons per year of lithium hydroxide monohydrate.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US is also studying DLE methods and said they could potentially supply 10 times the current US demand for lithium from the Salton Sea.
“Lithium-rich geothermal brines represent a vast untapped resource that can potentially be developed into a robust domestic supply while adding to a well-paid workforce,” NREL Senior Geoscientist Ian Warren said in an announcement. last year regarding his research on DLE.
“Growing global demand and the need for a secure supply of lithium has created deep interest – and urgency – in the full development of a DLE that is considered environmentally safe,” he added. ®